The practice of tattooing has become quite popular in recent decades. States have adopted a range of laws governing this profession because of the inherent risks to personal and public health involved. While not all states require someone giving a tattoo to have a license, most of them have license requirements of some kind. Additionally, some cities or municipalities have adopted ordinances that apply to tattooing that may add requirements beyond those required by the state. In many states, it is a crime to give someone else a tattoo without having a proper state license.
State laws define tattooing slightly differently from one another, but they all cover any instance where someone uses a needle to inject pigments or dyes into another person's skin in order to leave indelible marks. The definition of tattooing does not require that any kind of compensation be exchanged between the person giving the tattoo and the person receiving it. This means, for example, that if a friend gives you a tattoo for free and he is not licensed to do so, he has committed a crime even though he never asked for or received any payment from you.
In states that require or allow for tattoo artist apprenticeships, the apprentice can practice only under the guidance or supervision of a properly licensed artist. For example, if you are an apprentice tattoo artist you cannot give tattoos unless you are being supervised by the licensed tattooist.
States regulate tattooing in one of two primary ways. First, a state may require individual tattoo artists to first apply for and receive a tattoo artist license before they give tattoos to anyone else. States also require tattoo establishments or tattoo parlors to also apply for and receive a license for the establishment. In states that require the establishment to be licensed, it's common for them also to require that no tattooing may take place unless it is performed in a licensed tattoo establishment.
For example, some states require both the artist and the establishment to be licensed. This means that anyone working in the establishment must have a license and can perform tattoos only in that particular licensed tattoo parlor. It is illegal for a licensed tattoo artist to perform tattoos in unlicensed locations, such at his or her home. It is also illegal for a licensed tattoo establishment to allow someone who is not licensed to give tattoos at that location.
In addition to licensing requirements, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 45 states have adopted laws prohibiting minors from getting tattoos or piercings. Some of these laws are blanket prohibitions against anyone giving a tattoo to a minor, while others allow for minors to get tattoos if they have the permission of a parent or guardian. Anyone who tattoos a minor in violation of these laws faces criminal penalties.
The potential penalties involved for anyone convicted of tattooing without a license differ significantly from state to state. Some states allow for both monetary fines and possible jail or prison time, while others do not. In the vast majority of states, violating tattoo licensing requirements is a misdemeanor offense, though felony punishments are possible in some limited situations.
Fines. A person convicted of practicing tattooing without a proper license often faces a fine. In some states, the law only allows for maximum penalty of a fine, while in other states fines and potential jail time are possible. Fines differ widely, with some states allowing for maximum fine of $50, $500, or $1,000 or more.
Jail or prison. In states with laws that provide for potential incarceration sentences for tattooing without a license, the crimes are almost always misdemeanor offenses. This means that the maximum potential penalty is no more than a year in jail. Many state laws provide for much lighter sentences. For example, tattooing without a license in Florida is a second-degree misdemeanor with a maximum jail sentence of 60 days. In a small minority of states, felony criminal charges can apply if someone gives a tattoo to a minor without permission from a parent or guardian.
Probation. Courts can also impose a probation sentence if you are convicted of tattooing without a license. Probation requires you to comply with various probation conditions, including common conditions such as not committing any more crimes, not giving any more tattoos until obtaining proper licensure, and paying all court costs and fines.
While some states impose only minor penalties for someone who tattoos without a license, the penalties in other states and in some circumstances can be very severe. Not only can you face incarceration and significant fines, but if you are professional tattoo artist or someone aspiring to be one, your ability to practice your profession can be seriously limited if not permanently derailed. If you are facing a tattooing without a license charge, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you as soon as you are able. State laws and municipal ordinances on tattooing differ significantly, and you need advice from an attorney who understands the laws that apply to your case and who has experience dealing with area police, prosecutors, and criminal courts.